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Over Easy: Stop and Hear the Music

In April 2007, the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten teamed up with violinist Joshua Bell in an experiment that had everyone talking — at least for a little while — about classical music.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. … Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

It was a stunt designed by The Washington Post to see if busy workers passing by would stop for beautiful music, but only seven stopped. Joshua Bell, a virtuoso violinist and now the Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, played incognito. No one knew that this young violinist outside the D.C. Metro at the top of the escalators, wearing a t-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap, was one of the finest classical musicians in the world. He played some of the most elegant music ever written (Bach, Schubert, Massenet), on one of the most valuable violins ever made, the Gibson ex Huberman, handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari. Weingarten explained that people had to be somewhere at a certain time, so they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take three minutes to stop and hear the music. Weingarten’s story won a Pulitzer Prize.

There was no demographic distinction among those who stopped to listen, who tossed some pocket change in Bell’s open violin case, or who rushed on by. Whites, blacks and Asians, men and women, young and old, were represented in each group of passers by. But the behavior of one demographic was unfailingly consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, an adult hustled the child away.

But on Tuesday this week, about 7 years later, Joshua Bell set up shop again at the entrance of Union Station. This time, he was anything but ignored. PBS Newshour covered the event.

Situated in the main hall, Bell, one of the most acclaimed classical musicians in the world, played Bach and Mendelssohn for a 30-minute performance to promote music education. He was accompanied by nine students from the National YoungArts Foundation. These young musicians are featured alongside the violin virtuoso in his HBO documentary special “Joshua Bell: A YoungArts MasterClass,” which will premiere on Oct 14.

Said Joshua Bell following the performance,

Music — you need the give and take from the audience, the feeling of attention. It’s not about me its about the music itself. Today, I was a little bit surprised at how many people came. I was a little worried that when I agreed to do it that there might be only a handful of people and it might be embarrassing, so this far exceeded my expectations. I was so happy. Where we need to work on is getting is making sure [music] is a part of everyone’s educational diet in the school. Music and art is part of what it means to be a human being and to be make it just an extra curricular thing is sad because most kids will not get any musical experience if they don’t have it in their school.

Do your schools offer music and art? Do you expose your family to music, classical or otherwise? And maybe even more important: do you take time to stop and hear the music?

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."